Water versus the Fortress

Photo by Sandra Kaas on Unsplash

Today is the birthday of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism.

Martin Luther was not just a theologian, he was also an author, a monk, a priest, and a composer. One of the most famous hymns he composed is titled “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” It opens with the following lyrics:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing:
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work his woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

This vision of God as a fortress marks the big difference between Eastern spirituality and Western spirituality. The West’s notion of God is something hard, rigid, and immovable. Because the Western man sees God as a fortress, He is also a shelter. Another famous Christian hymn is titled “Rock of Ages.” It begins with these words, “Rock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” There is no question that the Abrahamic religions tend to use a masculine language to portray God. He is the strongman, the king, and the Supreme Protector.

In contrast, Taoism uses a feminine language to portray the Tao. Lao Tzu said that “superior good is like water.” This is quite the opposite of the Western image. Water is flexible and malleable. It is never rigid. Water adapts to its environment. Unlike a fortress that provides resistance, water yields. Many forms of Asian martial arts use this Taoist principle of gentleness and the strategy of yielding. Judo, for example, literally means “the Tao of gentleness.” Similarly, karate is literally translated as “the Tao of the empty hand.” A mind that is empty and not stuffed up is more capable of adapting quickly to surprises. The Judo Information website provides the following description of the main principle of Judo:

Judo is a dichotomy because it is both gentle and dynamic in activity. The sport uses the same concept borrowed from the ancient Japanese jujitsu where ju also meant gentle. In both systems, it meant to not resist, to give way, to be compliant. It referred to conditions where someone imposes their will upon you. Usually this is a physical action, but it could be verbal as well. The Judo response is to give way, to not meet force head-on.

The reason for yielding is easy to understand. One key principle of Judo is stated as “Maximum efficiency, minimum effort.” As a martial artist, one should expend one’s energy wisely, not recklessly. Energy or effort should not be wasted. This is crucial in the art of living. Thus, in combat, the martial artist yields when there is nothing to be gained by using force. There are also situations where one can gain an advantage through yielding — if your opponent exerts force and you unexpectedly yield, it may cause him to lose his balance and fall. During the Vietnam War, the Vietcong often used the tactic of yielding. That is the essence of guerilla warfare. It is a tactic to use when your enemy is physically bigger and stronger than you. Instead of having a head-to-head clash, you use surprise and deception. That may be called the feminine art of war. Lao Tzu also taught that “The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world. Through this, I know the advantage of taking no action.” This is the wisdom of stillness and yielding. We know that water can shape and polish the surface of a rock. This is the power of gentle action.

Martin Luther’s approach to spirituality is very masculine and militant. But if you look closely at Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, you will see that Jesus’s spirituality is more feminine than masculine. For example, the Beatitudes start with the following:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the Earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

It is clear to me that Jesus’s spirituality is closer to Lao Tzu than to Luther. By choosing to be poor in spirit, meek, and humble, the kingdom of God is realized. I see Jesus and Lao Tzu walking hand-in-hand. Do you?

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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